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Listening is the key

I see that in the government's latest version of GCSE modern languages we are returning to an assessment regime based on 25% of marks awarded to each of the four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. I really do not know why each skill is valued the same; it has that suspicious look of a government target like the one which aimed for 50% of young people going to university.

Although 4 x 25% is better than the current regime it still seriously overvalues writing and undervalues listening. In my perception of language learning (everyone is entitled to their own since science cannot tell us what works best for every person or teacher), listening is at the heart of everything. When we learn our first language we do so by listening and are spared preparing for vocabulary tests, writing essays and doing translation (which would be a bit tricky). When we learn a second language I am happy to go along with the simple and appealing notion that it is a lot like first language acquisition in that we acquire fluency through, above all else, listening to messages we understand. Reading fulfils a similar but less fundamental role.

Therefore, it seems to me, we should be getting students to listen as much as we can and we should be rewarding this skill as much as possible in our assessment regimes. The more marks we allocate to listening in examinations, the more likely we are to spend time on it in class. If we do more listening, we will not only improve comprehension, but bring about greater oral fluency in our students.

As for writing, as I have written before in this blog, the main reason for doing it in class and for homework is to reinforce the other language skills. In later life very few people will need to write in a foreign language, whereas far more will want to engage in simple conversations. Computer translation is already quite sophisticated and rapidly becoming more so, therefore when the need arises to write in a foreign language people will take advantage of Google Translate or similar. I already use Google Translate to save time when I am adapting material from an English language source. I get a first draft from Google, then correct and adapt it, thus producing more quickly a very acceptable piece of written French. I would need to be a native speaker to do much better.

If I were designing a new GCSE assessment regime and wanted to separate out each skill (we don't have to, by the way), then I would weight the skills roughly as follows:

Listening   30%
Speaking  30%
Reading    25%
Writing     15%

It is worth noting that some ways of assessing oral skills demand some additional assessment of listening as, in the context of a conversation or role play, you have to understand to be able to speak, so marks are bound to be awarded ultimately for listening comprehension.

The truth is that we tend to judge a person's skill in a foreign language by their ability to speak. To do this a person has to be able to listen effectively. Reading has its place in some contexts, writing in fewer.

Is such a devaluation of writing a form of dumbing down? I believe not. Grammatical skill is still assessed as part of speaking assessment and also comes in to listening and reading assessment. One might argue that written papers are the ones some students find hardest and all language teachers have had to endure appalling standards of writing at times. However, many students will also report that speaking and listening are the hardest to do because they require such instant reactions and complex skills.


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